ST. LOUIS -- When Greg Holland returned from the disabled list a little more than two weeks ago, there was a sense that this could be it for the longtime closer. The leash on his stay in St. Louis was running precariously close to its end.Before he could lobby for
ST. LOUIS -- When Greg Holland returned from the disabled list a little more than two weeks ago, there was a sense that this could be it for the longtime closer. The leash on his stay in St. Louis was running precariously close to its end.
Before he could lobby for late-inning opportunities, Holland had to first justify a spot on the roster. There was an urgency to assure the Cardinals they hadn't made a $14 million mistake.
He's done so with a string of efficient and effective appearances (Wednesday's performance notwithstanding), giving the Cardinals reason to wonder whether the best bullpen upgrade available to them as the Trade Deadline approaches is the one already under control.
"I do think every time he goes out there and pitches like he has [recently], you feel more and more like that previous two months of Greg Holland was a combination of a whole bunch of things, and we're back to the one that we expected," general manager Michael Girsch said. "It certainly changes our expectations of what he's going to do moving forward."
So how has he transformed from a pitcher battered for a .339/.473/.525 slash line through 18 games to one now slowly being entrusted with a more high-leverage role?
Pitch usage appears to be part of it. While still mostly reliant on two pitches -- a fastball and slider -- Holland has been more willing to mix in his curve. Usage of that pitch has increased from 5.3 percent (before his hip impingement injury) to 17.1 percent in eight games since coming off the disabled list. That has led to a more varied look.
"I threw a lot more curveballs early in my career, and I got away from it," Holland said. "I'm at a spot right now where I have a really good feel for it in the strike zone. I think it's helped my slider, which I always thought was my best pitch. It's given me the ability to get ahead without showing my best pitch."
Pitch location has improved, too. Prior to going on the DL, Holland located 45.5 percent of his sliders on the outer third of the plate or away to a right-handed batter. That percentage, according to Statcast™, has jumped to 67.6 percent in his return.
The foundation for these improvements has been a fixed and consistent delivery.
"That lets me throw the ball more often where I want to," Holland explained. "If I'm ahead of hitters, it gives me a lot more options in terms of mixing pitches, expanding the zone, getting hitters on the defense instead of putting yourself in spots where you're more predictable. I think it's been one of those situations where I've been able to get ahead because my delivery has been better."
From there, so much else has fallen into place. Holland's groundball rate has spiked from 36 percent (pre-injury) to 56.3 percent (post-injury). He's averaging 14 pitches per inning now compared to 21.4 earlier, and his strike percentage has jumped from 59 to 72.
After walking 15 and striking out 10 in his first 18 games, Holland has issued one walk while striking out eight since. Opponents' OPS has plummeted from .998 to .431.
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The turnaround has prompted a subtle shift in usage, which the Cardinals hope continues on the path toward Holland reestablishing himself as s a reliable late-inning option. At a time when the organization is considering bullpen upgrades potentially available in the trade market, they are hopeful that a player who'd been signed to be the closer can help fill the need.
It is, however, still a work in progress. Manager Mike Matheny continues to show some hesitancy in letting Holland work through jams, as was evidenced with Wednesday's quick hook after allowing the two batters he faced to reach base. For Holland, earning that trust back will require treating low-leverage or middle-inning appearances with the same tenacity that made him one of baseball's top closers from 2013-17.
"I had to come to terms with the fact that I have to be locked in from the first pitch," Holland said. "I have to be true to myself and do what I do well. That's attack, go out there compete, and let it rip, regardless of the situation."
Jenifer Langosch has covered the Cardinals for MLB.com since 2012, and previously covered the Pirates from 2007-11. Follow her on Twitter and Facebook.